The great summary statement of theology at the Seventh Ecumenical Council is succinct: Icons do with color what Scripture does with words. The first time I read this, I was a graduate student at Duke University, studying Systematic Theology. I wound up writing my thesis on the “Icon as Theology.”
What was new for me – and the thought that became central in my mind – was the inherent possibilities in the simple statement of the Seventh Council. To make the link between icon and Scripture is not quite the same thing as saying, “Icons tell a story.” Many icons do indeed tell a story – but they do so in a particular manner. Thus it is first off quite interesting to say that you can tell a story with color.
Icons indeed tell stories – but they do so in a very unique manner. Icons are not cartoons. Cartoons tell stories, but usually through a certain caricature of reality. They are like little movies with most of the action removed. I was a great lover of comic books as a young boy – indeed I had a friend who was a great lover of “Classic Comics” all the way through high school, since those comic books often provided a shortened version of some of the books we were required to read as literature.
But icons are not cartoons. They fairly early on developed an artistic “grammar,” a way of saying things with color that words could not always easily repeat. In that sense, icons do something with color that Scripture does with words – but Scripture does things with words that sometimes require icons to help us read.
The artistic grammar of icons is commonly known as “reverse perspective.” Instead of letting the traditional rules of perspective make distance a matter of lines converging within the painting (so that the farther away they are the closer the lines become), icons use just the opposite. The space of an icon “opens up” and becomes larger as we look at it. This grammar is the reason icons frequently show buildings in which “both sides” are portrayed. It also largely governs the “look” that we see in human faces – we are seeing the face of another in which the “reality” of the person expands and grows greater – rather than shrinking away from us. As such, the grammar of icons is not the traditional grammar of “historical” painting, of the painting to which the West became accustomed with the Renaissance. Icons are not photographic. They do not obey the historical and artistic grammar of photography.
Scripture, particularly as read by the Orthodox Church, has a grammar as well. That grammar is the reality of Pascha. We can say that the Scriptures, both Old and New Testament, have a “Paschal Shape.” The more firmly you understand and know the reality of Pascha, the more clearly you will see its image portrayed over and over in the stories of Scripture. And the more firmly we know the reality of Pascha, the more the Scriptures will open that reality to us.
One of the great “grammatical” moments in the life of the Church is found on Holy Saturday. There we hear 15 lessons of Scripture, mostly drawn from the Old Testament.
Genesis 1:1-3 which draws its meaning from the fact that it stops on the 3rd day, the day on which life is created. It is a commentary on the Third Day of Genesis which was a Paschal Shape. On the third day, Pascha brought forth new life as well.
Isaiah 60:1-6 Which begins, “Arise shine, for your light has come.” What follows is fulfilled in the Pascha of Christ, who is our arisen light.
Exodus 12:1-11 The intstitution of the first Pascha (Passover)
Jonah: 1:1-17, 2:1-10. 3:1-10. 4:1-11 Jonah, contrary to fundamentalist literalism is about Christ three days in the belly of the earth. Thus we read:
Thus Johan prayed to the Lord his God from the belly of the whale saying, “I called to the Lord, out of my distress, and He answered me; out of the belly of Sheol I cried, and Thou didst hear my voice. For Thou didst cast me into the deep, into the heart of the seas, and the flood was round about me; all Thy wave and Thy billows passed over me…”
If you read the whole passage it is the voice of Christ from Sheol, not Jonah from the belly of a whale.
And on the readings go in the same manner. These are not just OT passages that coincidentally remind us of Christ’s Pascha. They are Scriptures about Christ’s Pascha. I am not saying that they are literature about Christ’s Pascha. They are Scriptures (Christian) about Christ’s Pascha. Christians need to get over their fear that someone is going to prove their history wrong. Christ is raised from the dead. If you don’t believe it, all the history in the world will not make you feel any better. You must know the Risen Lord. Then all will seem clear.
But these marvelous passages of Scripture, like the beautiful grammar of icons, need to be learned in proper manner. The historians cannot give us the grammar of Scripture. The Church alone knows this grammar.
We need to learn to speak the language of color.